Just coincidentally, I finally saw the chilling German film The Lives of Others late last month, when I was in the midst of talking with—or trying to talk with—residents of what used to be called the Acme Artists' Community. Maybe the movie colored my worldview, but attempts at communication with residents at what's now the Bloomingdale Arts Building suggest an environment with parallels to life in East Germany. On West Bloomingdale, as in East Berlin while the wall still stood, you can find the cautious, urgent sharing of a few facts, the fearful concern for anonymity, the angry outburst followed by a perplexing silence, the weariness that gives way to submission.
When it opened four years ago this collection of condominiums and a few commercial spaces, carved out of a rehabbed factory at 2418 W. Bloomingdale, was heralded as the first city-subsidized live/work space for artists in Chicago. Developed by the Near Northwest Arts Council (NNWAC) in collaboration with the people who would live there, it offered what sounded like an ideal environment: handsome, adaptable spaces built around a communal courtyard—a "village in the city" where poets, painters, and musicians would pursue their art and raise their families. It promised refuge from the gentrification that pushes artists out of one cheap neighborhood after another and instant equity, thanks to forgivable down-payment loans from the city. But it never fully delivered on its promises, and according to residents who didn't want to be quoted, questions about problems have routinely met with hostility.
Since the beginning the project has been plagued by construction defects, which have had unit owners battling NNWAC, the contractor, and one another while dealing with floods, leaks, and mold and the resulting wavy floors, crumbling walls, and bad smells. City inspectors have been called, work has been found wanting, repairs have dragged on, blame has bounced back and forth. Last year the residents—seeking to distance themselves from NNWAC, which also operates the nearby Acme Art Works gallery—got their act together enough to vote in a name change.
In the past two years, two of the four nonprofit organizations occupying space on the main floor, which was supposed to provide an income stream for the project, bailed or failed. Woman Made Gallery moved out in disgust a year and a half ago, and the Chicago Mutual Housing Network, a consultant and trainer for resident-controlled housing (including Acme), went out of business. Their spaces stand empty. Residents say NNWAC has fallen behind in paying assessments on the commercial space it owns and on a second unit that it was supposed to operate as a bed-and-breakfast. And after four years of problems with the roof, this summer the residents had it repaired at a cost of $120,000. City inspectors reported that the roof put on during the rehab was not installed according to plans—a responsibility of the developer and contractor—but residents are footing the bill through a special assessment. "I'm paying $50 a month more for two years," one noted. "We got shafted."
Despite the campaign to keep the problems under wraps, you can hop on the city's Chicago Artists Resource website and get a pretty good sense of them. A click on the "Space" option there brings up an article by NNWAC head Laura Weathered, who's built a reputation as an authority on artists' housing and sounds like she might be gearing up for another subsidized live/work project. Weathered offers advice on what it takes to build an artists' community—including the use of NNWAC, "with a history of democratic control, willing to work every angle possible and the tenacity of a pit bull." She mentions rewards, like "spontaneous dinner parties" and "a garden that is a bit of paradise in the city," but not much about what happens when everything doesn't go as planned. The only allusion to the project's troubled history is a caveat: "Not every artist can live with community control, and shared decision making requires patience and mutual respect. Building community is not easy."
But plug Weathered's name into CAR's search engine and it'll bring up a rant of a press release, dated June 11, by filmmaker Mark Siska, a Bloomingdale resident who accuses Weathered of attempting to illegally convert commercial space into residential units. In an interview last month, Siska said Weathered began conversion of the former Woman Made Gallery without the necessary zoning change and without the approval of the condominium owners for that change, as required by their rules. Siska accuses the condominium board of favoring the interests of the developer over those of the building owners and failing to "uphold condo law." He also accuses the association treasurer of failing to collect thousands of dollars in assessments from NNWAC. He claims the board president's response to the situation was to e-mail residents asking them not to contact anyone or talk to any city officials. (The e-mail explains that this is the advice of the association's lawyer.)
Work on the former Woman Made space appeared to be at a standstill last week, but there's a prominent sign over the building entrance offering "Artists live/work condos . . . 1200 square feet . . . Asking $199,000." And NNWAC's 550-square-foot bed-and-breakfast appears in CAR's real estate listings, offered for $134,900. Real estate agent Melissa Stanley says the sign is out-of-date. She's trying to sell both the bed-and-breakfast and one of the residential units in the Woman Made space, which she has listed at $188,000. She says the other unit in the former gallery space has already sold.
Weathered declined to comment. "The whole community is in the midst of an arbitration," she said. "The lawyer for the association asked everyone not to talk about it and I'm gonna respect that." Association president David Faccini, who spoke to me briefly before apparently deciding not to say more, said he pushed for the roof repair because it had to be done, no matter who wound up paying for it: "I said, 'We'll get these things fixed and then see where it goes.'" Faccini said that on July 25 residents met to discuss a settlement agreement with the developer (he declined to discuss issues and terms) and "now we're going to see whether the conditions are acceptable to all parties involved. I'm hoping we can come to some common ground. It's been four years, and I think all the issues in this building have gotten in the way of proper artistic community living, the way this project was meant to be."
Another resident reached the same day said the settlement would include what he referred to as a gag order. "Before we sign, we want to say as much as possible," he declared, promising a call back. It never came.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): The former Acme Artists' Community photo by Robert Drea; Laura Weathered in 2005 photo by A. Jackson.